The AbaWanga Kingdom. The Wanga(AbaWanga) are a nation of the Luhya people and a historical Kingdom within present day Kenya. They mainly occupy Kakamega County, one of the most densely populated counties in Kenya. The Wanga Kingdom was the most highly developed and centralised kingdom in Kenya’s entire history before the advent of British colonialism in the early 1900s. Today the AbaWanga number around 732,000 and retain the Nabongo as their cultural monarch. The current Nabongo is Peter Mumia II
The Wanga ancestors were part of the migration that settled in the Kampala area and formed the Buganda Kingdom. In their culture, a king’s brother or cousin from the paternal line is eligible for succession to the throne and thus poses a threat to the reigning monarch. Accordingly, a Baganda omulangira (prince) called Kaminyi, a son of Mawanda of Buganda fled to the Tiriki area in the current Western Province area in the upheaval that followed the murder of his father by a group of Ganda princes led by his cousin Mwanga I of Buganda. There Kaminyi became a ruler and was succeeded by his son Wanga, who took the title Nabongo and established the Wanga Kingdom in the 18th Century.
The formation of the Wànga Kingdom led to rapid territorial and political expansion especially in the latter years of the 18th century. Earlier on and throughout its history, the Wanga Kingdom was prone to succession feuds the most notable resulting in the splitting of the the kingdom when the sons of Nabongo Osundwa rivalled each other over the throne. The eldest son, Kweyu was outwitted by a younger one called Wamukoya Netia, who then succeeded Osundwa. In protest, Kweyu seceded and founded Wanga Mukulu (Upper Wanga). Wamukoya Netia ruled Wanga Elureko (Lower Wanga). The two states co-existed but Wanga Elureko rightfully remains the Wanga Kingdom (it retained the royal regalia of the great Nabongo Wanga), was larger, more prominent and better organised. During his reign, Nabongo Wamukoya Netia employed the Uasin Gishu Maasai to raid neighbours for cattle and his successors did the same. Nabongo Wamukoya Netia was a notorious trickster who enjoyed killing people especially his Maasai mercenaries. The treachery of Nabongo Wamukoya Netia was designed to eliminate the Maasai as an alternate power source at his court as well as designed to strengthen his personal power.When the mercenaries discovered his treachery they revolted. Nabongo Shiundu,(1841—1882) Wamukoya Netia’s son and heir, established effective and respectable authority and it was during his reign that the Wanga Kingdom reached its greatest extent.
The kingdom was visited by Arab and Swahili slave traders which explains the high incidence of Islamic presence amongst the Wanga compared to other Luhya. The slave traders operated from Elureko (future Mumias) against the fragmented Bukusu in the north and the Jo-Ugenya in the south from 1878 from whom they captured a lot of slaves and exported. The most notorious slave-raiders were Sudi of Pangani and Abdulla bin Hamid of Mombasa.
Family and Traditional Life
The Wanga Kingdom is a confederation of 22 co-equal clandoms called Tsihanga (singular lihanga) which traditionally were in turn divided into tsimbia (singular oluhyia). Tsimbia were divided into tsingongo (singular olukongo). The common denominator of administration at all levels except the family, was the clan Council of Elders (Abakofu bakali or Abakali be Lizokho) headed by a chief or Liguru. The clan council of elders composition depended on the size of the area. The Liguru and council of elders were independent, but subject to the Nabongo who exercised indirect influence over them in the regions. At the court, his influence was direct. He appointed Abakali belitokho, (the king’s elders at Court) Weyengo (i.e. Chief Judge) and Eshiabusi (the Judge). The Nabongo was the executive head of the central government. He was the final counsellor and adviser, because he was automatically regarded as wise, benign, benevolent and neutral. The Nabongo was the source of peace and stability. He was also the custodian of traditions and customs of the royal dynasties.
The Nabongo was the head of the legislative and executive bodies. He was assisted in these bodies by the courtiers. These were experts in military matters, foreign affairs and rain-making. There were also members of the judiciary headed by Weyengo. They constituted the Court of Appeal. Eshiabusi linked the executive and the judiciary. The elders in his council were voluntary members. They were assisted by legal experts drawn from the local government. The Weyengo presided over all deliberations. It was this arrangement which reduced the chances of a civil war. The power struggle was restricted in Abashitsetse dynasty.
The Nabongo is and was the custodian of traditions and customs of the land. He guarded the royal regalia which consisted of the copper bracelet and sacred spears – likutusi and lishimbishira – of the great Nabongo Wanga.
Traditionally agriculture was an important aspect among the AbaWanga they practiced crop farming. They planted sorghum and millet and also engaged in pastoralism as well as fishing and animal hunting of gazelles and antelopes. Gazelle horns were used as a communication tool in the ancient days to summon the AbaWanga for meetings. The Wanga were also very advanced in ironworks (see images below).
The Wanga also developed an advanced military system consisting of clan regiments who went to war in distinct full war regalia made of the colobus monkey skin, a spear and shield (ingabo) and headgear identifying clan and age-set. Leisure and entertainment normally went hand in hand amongst the Wanga. Traditional smoke pipes and bao (olukho) would go together after a hard day’s work as men chatted away while women prepared meals.
Also traditionally, the extended family and the clan were at the center of the Wanga culture. AbaWanga practiced polygamy, and a man was given more respect depending on the number of wives he had. This is because only a very wealthy man could afford to pay the dowry (bride price) for several wives. The dowry was paid in the form of cattle, sheep, or goats. Today, polygamy is no longer widely practiced, but dowry payment is still revered in amongst the Wanga. Instead of giving cattle, sheep, or goats as the bride price, one may pay a dowry in the form of money. However, marrying a person from one’s own clan is considered taboo, because of this every Wanga is descended from a Nabongo and through common descent, to Nabongo Wanga. Traditional male circumcision is an important ritual amongst the AbaWanga. It marks the initiation from boyhood to manhood. The modern and educated AbaWanga continue to choose to circumcise their sons in hospitals in the traditional circumcision years every August and December.
Ugali, known as obusuma in LuWanga, is the traditional food of the Wanga. Ugali is made from either maize flour or cassava, or millet flour. It is usually served with chicken. While the AbaWanga eat many other foods, a meal is never complete without some ugali.
The following are the Tsihanga (clans) of AbaWanga with the reference to female given in brackets: 1. Abashitsetse (Bwibo); 2. Abakolwe (Nabakolwe); 3. Abaleka (Nabaleka); 4. Abachero (Njero); 5. Abashikawa (Nashikawa); 6. Abamurono (Oronda); 7. Abashieni (Shieni); 8. Abamwima (Namwima); 9. Abamuniafu (Ngakhwa); 10. Abambatsa (Luleti); 11. Abashibe (Nashibe); 12. Ababere (Nebere); 13. Abamwende (Luchimbo); 14. Abakhami (Nabakhami); 15. Abakulubi (Akwanyi); 16. Abang’ale (Namang’ale); 17. Ababonwe (Nbonwe); 18. Abatsoye (Nabatsoye); 19. Abalibo (Namwasi); 20. Abang’ayo (Nang’ayo); 21. Ababule (Nabule); 22. Abamulembwa (Namulembwa).
The Extent of the Wanga Kingdom
There are two versions regarding the extent of the Wanga Kingdom. The first version is that the Wanga Kingdom extended as far west as Buganda; as far south as Samia; as far north as Mount Elgon and as far east as Naivasha. This version was advanced by the AbaWanga, and the British imperialists supported it in order to get allies in the imposition of colonial rule. The second version is that the Wanga Kingdom coincided in size with North Kavirondo, later called North Nyanza, i.e the present Western Province.
Nabongo Mumia Shiundu
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Although other great Nabongos predated him, it is Nabongo Mumia Shiundu who is widely regarded as the last great ruler of the Wanga Kingdom largely because of his interaction with and management of the British colonial transition. You cannot talk about the AbaWanga without recognising the role of Nabongo Mumia who ruled the Wanga Kingdom at a time when Africa was getting into colonial contact with Europeans and Arabs. Mumia, from whose name the administrative town of Mumias is derived, ruled the Kingdom for 67 years from 1882 to 1949 in one of the longest epochal reigns in African history. When the British arrived in Western Kenya in 1883, they found the Wanga Kingdom as the only organized state with a centralised hereditary monarch in the whole of what later came to be known as Kenya. Mumia died in 1949 and was succeeded by his son Nabongo Shitawa.
Mumia was born a prince between 1849 and 1852: His parents were Nabongo Shiundu Wamukoya and his mother,Wamanya. There is little information about the early life of Mumia. He grew up as an ordinary child. Before the age of 18 years, he looked after cattle and played games such as wrestling, tug-of-war, gliding on slippery slopes and jumping in a loop. He socialised like any Wanga child. For instance, in the evenings, he kept fire burning and exchanged stories and proverbs. He trapped animals like the hare, moles- and squirrels. He also chased away birds which destroyed crops. The interesting aspect of young Mumia was that he was timid and shy to strangers. Shiundu concluded that Mumia was weak and feminine in character, and he refused to appreciate his good qualities. For example, Mümia was slender-and tall, had a deep voice, and was a pleasant young man. These qualities commanded respect among his peers. However, Shiundu did not prepare him to be a King.
Mumia succeeded his father not by tradition but through circumstances. The eldest son, Mulama, who was supposed to succeed by tradition, died when he was young. Luta was next in the line but Wamanya wanted her only child to be king and she was aware of Shiundu’s low rating of Mumia’s character. She therefore manoeuvred, intrigued and succeeded in making Mumia the Nabongo. She tricked Luta into wearing shimbishira (head-dress) meant for heroes. That meant that Luta wanted to depose his father and inherit the throne. It had not happened before. Shiundu therefore acted swiftly and promptly. He disinherited Luta both of the Nabongoship and property. He even threatened to appoint a female heir. It was suggested to him by his advisers who had been courted by Wamanya, that Mumia should inherit the Nabongoship. Shiundu did not appoint another heir until the eve of his death when he reluctantly accepted Mumia as his successor.
Addendum – October 2013
Much has been written about Nabongo Mumia, his long reign and its impact on both the Wanga Kingdom and present day Kenya by notable scholars such as John N. B. Osogo (Nabongo Mumia of the Baluyia, 1970, East African Literature Bureau), Simon Kenyanchui (Nabongo Mumia, 1992, Heinemann Kenya) and Shadrack Amakoye Bulimo (Luyia Nation: Origins, Clans and Taboos, 2013, Trafford Publishing). There is still a lot of debate about the inevitability that colonialism brought to many African nation groups but undoubtedly some of them adjusted better to the new realities than others. Nabongo Mumia took three major decision points that greatly affected not only his reign but the destiny of the AbaWanga to this day. These are;-
Education: on initial contact with the British, the Nabongo was rightfully suspicious of their motives and rejected quite a number of their proposals which he saw would reduce his authority. One of these proposals was the establishment of faith based educational institutions firstly by missionaries and later by the colonial government amongst the AbaWanga. Communities that took up education in colonial Kenya established themselves as front-runners for the new opportunities of vocation, business and political positioning in post-colonial Kenya.
Islam: Nabongo Mumia enabled the establishment of Islam among the Wanga because of his suspicion of the British and their faith/education systems. He had been visited by Arab and Swahili slave traders early in his reign and had been impressed with their cunning and trading skills. However, he was reluctant to allow the spread of Islam amongst the AbaWanga and only permitted Islamic proselytizing as a means to establish political buffer against the British. Today as many as 20% of AbaWanga are Muslim and constitute a distinct socio-political group not only within the Kingdom but among the Luhya community. Thus any present and future decisions among the AbaWanga have to factor in the standards of the Muslim community.
Coronation of King Edward VII of Britain: in 1901 Queen Victoria of Britain died and was succeeded by her son Edward VII who scheduled his coronation for 1902. Nabongo Mumia was among many invitees to London for the event. He set out for the long journey that would have involved taking a ship from Mombasa. He made it to Mombasa where unfortunately he was convinced by his Swahili and Arab friends that the British had intentions of either holding him captive in London, deporting him to the Seychelles like they did to Omukama Kabarega of Bunyoro in 1899 or appointing someone else as Nabongo. The Nabongo then made the fateful decision to turn back and not proceed to the London coronation. Whilst it made practical sense, other kingdoms in the region like the Buganda, Bunyoro, Tooro were represented which established them as “Friends of the British Empire” and thus were heavily factored in by the British in all political dispensations in the region. There is a high possibility that the AbaWanga kingdom would have been set aside as a distinct federal entity in Kenya had Nabongo Mumia made it to London to honor their invite.
Like other Kenyans, the Wanga are involved in almost every sector of Kenya’s economy. For example, in most urban areas, there are as many AbaWanga working as professional vocations as there are in business as well as semi-skilled laborers. In their geographical region, the AbaWanga practice farming and agriculture, growing sugarcane and other cash crops specific to the region forming the bulk of their economic activities. Most of the sugar consumed in Kenya is produced in the AbaWanga region around Mumias. Other agricultural products grown by the Wanga include maize (corn) and wheat. However for many years now, dependence on sugar-cane agriculture as a primary income source has led to a general decline in the Wanga region’s economic growth further accelerated by Kakamega County being amongst the most populous counties in Kenya with the attendant land inheritance and fragmentation issues.
However, there are plans to enable the AbaWanga region develop its good potential by developing the infrastructural, telecommunications and service infrastructure in position for the for rapid industrial development because the infrastructure that is usually necessary already exists. This includes developing road infrastructure, investment in water & sewerage works, upgrading of markets & bus-parks, investment in education facilities (see concept for Proposed Mumias Graduate School below), construction of health centers and new security installations. Its also envisoned that as the region develops, it can take advantage of the 30MW of electricity being fed back into the national grid by Mumias Sugar. Mumias town is ideally placed for industrial development within the wider East Africa region by virtue of being centrally-located within East Africa along the main trading routes between the coast/Nairobi and the hinterland of Uganda, Rwanda and the DR of the Congo, and adjacent to Kakamega and Kisumu – major trading centres in the region. The opportunities exist for industrial agricultural production in crop seed, selected green vegetables, pharmaceutical crops, palm oil and others.
Nabongo Peter Mumia II
As befits a prince, Nabongo Peter Shitawa Mumia II was born in a mission hospital and the time of his birth recorded at eight in the morning on Sunday September 14, 1952. “Who but kings could take their wives to hospital and have records so meticulously kept,” he muses. And the man grew up as a prince (if not more like a chief’s son) who went to school in shoes and when he was big enough, rode a bicycle to school. “Growing up was a very comfortable affair with my father’s subjects bearing gifts of all kind during their visits and we were still getting income from the open air market.” This meant while ordinary folks relied on traditional vegetables, “our every meal had either fish, beef or chicken.”
He may still have pieces of the chicken on his table, but life has changed for the king who now has to use taxis or even jump into a matatu to get to a function or his office in Nairobi, instead of the chauffeur-driven alternative . “For us people from the village, it is impossible to drive in this town.” The man who would be king went to school up to ‘A’ levels, trained as an accountant and initially worked as an assistant accountant for the East African Road Services, before joining Lonrho as a financial accountant.
He later worked for Toyota East Africa as a workshop manager and as the sales manager, a position he retired from in 2005. “Although I started getting media attention way back in 1982, I did not get any favours from my work place and only rose to the positions I did through hard work and experience. People respected my status, but that is as far as it went.” He admits that he did not perform much of the kingly duties until after retirement when “I started concentrating on my traditional leadership role and in reviving the Kingdom of Wanga”. He later got involved with the Elders of Kenya Peace Initiative, and attended various workshops on cultural issues. He is currently the national co-ordinator of the House of Traditional Elders in Kenya, “a unifying social organisation for all traditional leaders and their councils. “We aim to bring harmony among the tribes of Kenya and ensure peaceful co-existence among them. As one of the ways of achieving this, we are also looking for ways to improve living standards through the establishment of economic and social development activities.”
Mumia II was installed as King of Wanga in 1974 when he was only 22 years old following the death of his father Nabongo Shitawa. However, his coronation was not to take place until April 2010 when in pomp and colour he was crowned as the 14th Nabongo of the Wanga at the Nabongo Cultural Centre.
The Way Forward
The vast majority of the AbaWanga have been born in the post-Nabongo Mumia era and beyond providing a foundational socio-cultural identity of being a “MuWanga”, the Kingdom remains a non-factor in most of their lives. Thus today’s MuWanga more readily identifies with the Republic of Kenya and/or their socio-political leaders at county and national levels more than they would with the Nabongo and/or the Kingdom.
Therefore the challenge for Nabongo Peter Mumia II and his successors is to re-invent the Kingdom to not only function as a cultural institution but to encompass all other aspects of society relevant to the AbaWanga. These are some of the suggested reforms being floated to guide the AbaWanga and the Kingdom forward;-
Establishment of an AbaWanga Constituent Assembly; the Kingdom should have a CA consisting of representatives from the 22 Tsihanga, women, youth, professionals etc
There should also be a Council of Elders featuring both men and women to serve as an advisory body to the Nabongo and the CA.
The AbaWanga need to examine future scenarios for both the Kingdom and the wider Luhya community to envision and plan for scenarios such as a post-Kenya existence.
Collective Investment program; the Kingdom needs an investment strategy to develop business interests like banks, real estate, factories etc
The management of the Kingdom should be entrusted to a cabinet consisting of a First Minister appointed by the Nabongo and approved by the CA and 5-10 ministers appointed by the First Minister.
The Kingdom should actively participate in strengthening the capacity and development of the 5 wider Luhya counties.
The Kingdom should actively seek to have elected AbaWanga at both county and national levels.
The Kingdom should ensure that as many AbaWanga as possible are registered voters and ready to participate in “bloc voting”
There needs to be greater involvement of women, youth and children in the functions of the Kingdom which so far is perceived as a gathering of old men.
Education: the Kingdom needs to develop an education and technical skills development program.
Cultural Partnerships; the Kingdom should actively develop partnerships with other Kingdoms both national and sub-national.
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